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Watercourse

Written by Angus Woodward for Northwest Review on no date provided

Much recent American poetry concerns everyday existence. The quotidian has been acceptable - even stylish - subject matter for the past several years. For a while it seemed to become more and more common each year. Family, marriage, suburbia, laundromats, gas stations, buses, kitchens, jobs, cats and dogs - all these have cropped up in contemporary poetry with more and more frequency. The Present, Reality, and The Down-to-earth have dominated. 

I am glad that this trend has happened. When poetry is woefully ignored by that vast and misty body known as the general public, any effort to make accessible verse is worthy. But I’ve gotten the feeling lately that this movement toward the mundane has gone too far. There are too many poems that exaggerate the everyday, that lean heavily on hyperbole in an effort to make these more common subjects seem worthy of our attention. Perhaps just as disturbing are poems that refuse to take the reader beyond the everyday, that begin and end with the mundane, without daring to stray into abstraction or figurative language. They fail to startle.

I admit the possibility that I’m simply a little tired of certain kinds of contemporary American poetry. Maybe the problem lies not in current verse, but in myself. In any case, Watercourse can provide a strong gust of very invigorating air to readers of American verse. Anthony Kellman lives, writes and teaches in our country, but his native land is Barbados, and that background allows him to explore subject matter that is new to most of us.

One of the most refreshing aspects of these poems is Kellman’s use of Barbadian voices. Many of the poems are monologues spoken by island natives. One such voice is heard in 'Smoke Some Herb and Dream of Bertha':

It did a year ago I see she
when I did liming by de coma wid-de boys, 
and when she pass, I psst-psst and tell she wha’ 
I would do if me and she did alone in one room.
She set-up she face like rain and cursed me… 

Other poems create fascinating conflicts by juxtaposing this dialect of Barbados with 'standard' English. Here is the second stanza of 'Sprat':

When yuh weak, yuh humble yuhself, 
When yuh weak, yuh humble yuhself,
Islands, touching, are shining shields 
in the dark void of the world.

The title poem makes use of a similar technique, and in both poems the clash of cultures: island/ mainland, colony/mother, traditional/modern in Watercourse are voices we don’t often hear, and that is one of the strongest appeals of this collection.

Another powerful aspect of this book is the abundance of lush description, especially of land- and sea-scapes. These poems bring Barbados to the reader quite vividly. From 'Sprat', again: 'The sun’s bright daggers / scathe the blue water and curl / on the reef-flat like shavings.' The first stanza of 'Flight' is written in the same startlingly perceptive way:

On the south-east coast
where metal birds, although sensed and seen
surprise the skyscape with ogre-like rumblings:
sudden as orange bougainvillaea or palm fronds
to the sunbather’s waking eyes
are the remains of a mansion.
Rust has oozed from and into its nail-pierced
body, the inexorable stamp
of the absence of ownership.
The roof, sides and floor are a torso
half-shredded by sharks.

This kind of strident metaphor-tinged description occurs in almost every poem.
A strong clement of Kellman’s poetics is metaphor, and his particular brand of metaphor is unique. His intention seems to be to challenge the reader with every trope. Metaphor is comparison and familiar comparisons are clichés, but Kellman’s figurative language is always fresh - the comparisons are original and new. There’s an invigorating strangeness to them. In 'Cattlewash: the Cruel Sea', boulders are 'choiceless laborers' whose 'eyesockets weep crabs.' In 'Beached', 'One vowel of sunlight shoots and burns / over the gorgonic reefs…' In 'After the Rain', 'The sun devours its reluctant veil / and sits on the throne…' In 'Sea Island', the walls of a cave '… bare their jungly thighs…' In 'Flight', 'four almonds droop / like men with shrapnel in their knees…' These are just a few.

This is Anthony Kellman’s first full-length collection. There are a few rough spots, places where he doesn’t reach the full potential of the skills demonstrated in the other poems. 'The Broken Sun', for example, sounds much more familiar, expressing tireless idealism in terms that seem a little too easy. But the feeling I get from Watercourse is that here is poetry that matters, that comes from a sociopolitical context much less stable than ours, where poetic expression is much more of a risk. The title poem has a refrain:

And so the grim news greet you
Bishop dead.
And yes the harsh winds grizzle you
Barrow dead.
And O the good news ease you
Burnham gone.
And yes the drumbeat hymn you
Baby Doc lock out,
and up to now he can’t believe he lose.
Heroes and tyrants burn for a night, 
Who now is the one you choose?

Clearly the choices facing Caribbeans are difficult, and there is little room in Caribbean poetry for descriptions of refrigerators, lawnmowers and furniture.

One unfortunate drawback is that Watercourse comes from a British publisher, Peepal Tree Press, and is not readily available here. It can be ordered by mail for $9.95 (U.S. check or money order) from Peepal Tree Press, [17 Kings Ave., Leeds LS6 1QS], Yorkshire, England. For that price you get a brisk gust of poetry, accompanied by illustrations from the poet’s brother, Winston Kellman.

This is a review of Watercourse

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